How do you inspire a room of 10-year-olds to stay anchored instead of drift off into their own world? How do you draw them out of their private world to work for the greater good? Since the self-regulation function of the brain is very immature in young kids and since kids are very responsive and sensitive to rewards—rewards are an excellent tool to help motivate kids to take control of their actions.
Rewards Are Not Bribes
During the famous Stanford marshmallow test where a young child is offered a choice: 1 marshmallow now or 2 marshmallows if the child can wait for 15 minutes.* You see 4-year-olds agonize, contort themselves. You see others discover ingenious ways to hold out for the prize of 2 marshmallows. Research says about 2/3rds cave in before the 15 minutes is up. But the child who can resist temptation by self-regulating at this early age is training his/her dendrites in key regions of the brain that lead to important mental strengths for years to come.
So it makes sense to find other ways to help kids develop self-control. And it's clear that kids need to be motivated to regulate their brains. But a typical classroom is not stocked with marshmallows for a teacher to dangle in front of students. And since classrooms are often full of mandates used to establish and maintain good order choice is often minimized. But during Kids’ Council we are all about the kids making choices.
Part of our voice/choice strategy at Inquiring Minds is to reinforce continually with kids in Kids’ Council that they are asked to make choices. Consciously making choices is new for them, and they are very motivated. The rewards are social/emotional not caloric.
Kids are guided to articulate the choice they are making so that they make a persuasive argument and command an audience of their peers.
Two things go together: Choice motivates kids to self-regulate. And being listened to and being allowed to act on that choice is a very powerful reward.
An example is the recent conundrum of how to get the 8 foot tall tree the kids made out of tubes in the art room up 2 flights of stairs into their classroom. The art teacher was trying to figure it out when I interjected, “Let the Kids’ Council decide.” The teacher said, “They’ll just pick their friends.” My hunch was they wouldn't. So I added, “Let's see what happens.”
Meanwhile, the co-captains were already conferring and quickly announced that they picked 3 girls and 4 boys to carry out the deed. These 7 pall bearers managed to get the 8 foot tree with 5 foot branch spans through 5 different 3 1/2 foot door openings up 2 flights laughing all the way. 2 kids automatically took on the role of cleaner-uppers, gathering all the leaves that shed along the way through the halls. Monica led the way to the classroom and together they gleefully, proudly, successfully installed the tree while I documented the event. It should be noted that Kids’ Council had been in place for 4 months at this point. They had made huge progress in cooperation and self-regulation in that time. And yes, in the beginning they might have just picked their friends.
When 5th graders are given choice the classroom gets brighter: We see lots of light bulbs turn on over their heads. Kids start to weigh their future options. They ask about their new responsibility and become more aware of their actions. In other words, they are on the road to self-regulation. And no marshmallows are required.
* Reference: Age of Opportunity, Dr. Laurence Steinberg
For more on our work in this area, especially the progress these kids are making check out the key words Kids' Council below.